A paper town is a fictional town that is invented by cartographers to make it obvious if someone violates their copyright. This fact is perhaps the most interesting part of Paper Towns, the novel, and now film, by John Green. Even still, Paper Towns is an earnest and fun take on the end of high school.
In Paper Towns, Quentin (Nat Wolff) believes that the miracle of his life is that he grew up across the street from Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), a beautiful, adventurous, somewhat legendary girl. While Margo is off being the coolest girl in school, Quentin stays on the straight and narrow with his best friends Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams). Then, late one night, Margo climbs in through Quentin’s bedroom window and enlists his help on a tour of revenge-based pranks. The next morning, she disappears. Disappearing is a favorite trick of Margo’s so no one worries much. Her parents don’t even file a police report. But every time Margo has left in the past, she’s hidden clues of her whereabouts for her little sister. Quentin becomes determined that Margo left clues for him and wants him to come find her. He brings Radar and Ben in on the quest, as well as Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage).
John Green probably writes teenagers better than anyone I’ve ever read. His teenaged characters are cringe-inducingly sincere, serious, dramatic, and optimistic, certain of their philosophies and wisdom in a way that speaks to adolescents where they are and makes those of us who have lived a little longer wince at the teenagedness of it all. I think Paper Towns pairs Green’s genius with a John Hughes Era level of goofiness and drama. The characters are in some respects the stock nerds we’re always supposed to root for in teen movies and Margo is clearly meant to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a quirky female character meant to teach the male lead to embrace and enjoy life). Their earnestness, however, is what saves them from being mere tropes. In the hands of John Green, they are full-fledged people, not just characters. That, in fact, is the lesson Quentin is meant to learn about his friends, Margo, and himself.
The drawback to this earnestness is that the film pulls its punches. Unlike The Fault in Our Stars, Green’s other novel-turned-film, the stakes aren’t very high. No one fears that Margo has been kidnapped or killed, she’s just on an adventure. Quentin’s quest to find her is fully self-serving—not even her parents are worried. Maybe it’s the advantage of my years, but I didn’t even think Margo was worth finding. Such self-mythologizing people rarely make good friends. That the destination was not as important as the journey is another theme of the story, and it holds true for the film as a whole also. I did not really care if Quentin ever found Margo, but I had fun watching him try. Meanwhile, his friendships were the best part of the movie. I am willing to give a lot of credit for the form of the story matching the message of the story, but without some consequences or risks involved, the movie doesn’t have much sizzle.
Without the sizzle, I would be satisfied with outstanding characters. Paper Towns has the potential to hit the mark here, but falls just short. Radar and Ben steal every scene they’re in and Justice Smith and Austin Abrams have great chemistry together and with the rest of the ensemble. Their counterparts, Lacey and Angela are a lot of fun to watch, but are never given as much space to develop in the story. Meanwhile, the main characters are not as compelling as their friends. Nat Wolff delivers a fine, if a little stiff, performance, but the character arch just doesn’t reach far enough. Cara Delevingne delivers a decent first performance, but her mythical character never fully becomes a real girl and it left me wondering if, acting-wise, the job might have been better performed by someone like Elle Fanning.
These criticisms aside, Paper Towns is the kind of movie I wish had come out when I was graduating from high school. (I, instead, got Napoleon Dynamite.) It’s fun and just the right amount of sentimental and delivers a satisfying reflection on the growing pains of prom and graduation. 3.5/5 stars.
Paper Towns was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by John Green. It was directed by Jake Schreier and runs 109 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity—all involving teenagers.
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